Why I built this

February 27, 2020

Back when I was in RV sales, one of my signature moves was taking customers into a trailer, making a fist, and punching the roof so hard it made the customers jump. I did this to illustrate how our trailers had premium construction with strong vacuum-bonded ceilings that could be walked on and handle snow buildup. By contrast, many of our competitors' roofs were made from thin plywood that would bend at the first point of contact — something you wouldn’t want to walk on!

I did this because unless I pointed it out, customers wouldn’t think twice about the difference between our trailers’ roofs and our competitors. But after they knew, many would go back to visit the competitors’ trailers to push up on the roof, only to discover how soft and weak it was. That knowledge would justify the higher price tag on the trailers we sold. 

This “trick,” albeit a silly sales technique, actually illustrates a very important point — that customers can only see value in what you show them

Volkswagen motorhomes park on a grassy lot.

It's the very same concept that made me so passionate about building Focal to help photographers succeed in their business — and, in the process, make the photography industry a better and fairer place.

Ironically, when I started Focal, I was one of those uninformed customers that didn’t think twice about how the roof was built. I thought photography was no more than a decent camera, a click of a button, and some fancy editing. I thought there was an opportunity in the market for a platform that offered hobbyist and amateur photographers at half the cost of professionals. I believed it so passionately that I spent 1,000 hours learning to code and then another 1,000 building the Focal iPhone app. We got a few photographers signed up and then launched in Victoria, BC.

It didn't take long for me to learn how wrong I was.

I went to our very first photoshoot to see how things went, and it was truly an eye-opening experience — I had never actually been to a photoshoot before, and here I was trying to start a photography marketplace.

A photographer readies for a shot.

The photographer did their best, but it was clear they hadn’t had a lot of experience working with people who weren’t used to having their photo taken. They had trouble getting the clients comfortable, didn’t give much direction, and struggled to control the flow of the shoot. Ultimately, the final photos didn’t come out anything like the photographer’s portfolio — which, I found out later, was mostly the result of working with models.

Discouraged and dismayed about providing a disappointing experience to our customers, I gave them a refund and contemplated the whole premise behind Focal... maybe I was totally wrong about trying to connect hobbyist and amateur photographers with customers.

It was around this time that two serendipitous things happened that forever changed the course of Focal:

Enter Marlboro

A professional photographer named Marlboro joined our mailing list. I reached out, and we met for a coffee. I’ll never forget his answer to when I asked him why he became a photographer.

A newlywed couple embraces in the evening light by the ocean.
Credit: Marlboro Wang Photo

He told me that when he first moved from China, he actually went to business school, but decided to drop out because he knew it wasn’t his passion. So, he changed his bachelor’s degree to arts. (Very much to the chagrin of his parents.) After school, he started pursuing his passion for photography. He shot for free, he worked as a 2nd shooter for anyone that would take him — it was hard.

He barely got any bookings that first year, but he never quit. Every year, he got a few more clients, did less free shoots, and started booking more weddings. But despite being established for the last few years, he explained that his photography business is like a hotel room that expires at the end of the day if no-one books him.

Signing up for Focal meant an opportunity to book more clients and spend more time behind the camera.

An opportunity

We got an inquiry from a customer who was looking for some photos of himself and his wife around some prominent Victoria landmarks. They were about to move out east after being in Victoria for over a decade. Their budget was only $300, which I knew was a lot lower than Marlboro’s normal rate, but I decided to ask him if he wanted to do it — he said sure.

Seeing Marlboro shoot was the polar opposite of our unsuccessful first shoot.

He had this disarming charm that instantly made the clients relax. While shooting, he took control by directing the clients to make sure they always knew what to do. He set up softboxes, and the big flashing lights would attract the looks of people walking by — the clients told us it made them feel like movie stars! You could tell his attention to detail by how he would wait for the wind to die down so as to not catch a moment with hair in the client’s face.

Again, my eyes were opened, but this time I understood that I had everything backwards. Here was a professional photographer who was delivering this incredible experience so that this couple would never forget the years of their lives in Victoria — and he was working for half of what he normally would. It made me think back to my RV days of punching the roof...

It's about value

As a photographer, you look at your work and the inherent value is obvious. It’s the culmination of years of training and experience. It’s your understanding of light, your eye for composition, and your ability to deliver a smooth experience to your clients. It’s your art. 

But a customer that hasn’t experienced a photoshoot before won’t know anything about that. This is the key.

Customers can’t properly value something unless they know exactly what the differences are. And the difficulty with photography is that customers often place too much focus on price and number of photos when they choose a photographer. They don't have an idea of what sort of experience they’re going to get until they’re in the photoshoot.

If I could only bang on the roof and show them! Maybe then, they’d understand the value. :)

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